Its ostensible purpose: Is it possible?
Is it possible that the mess in Fort Lee really was some sort of bungled traffic study?
After scanning the new cache of documents released yesterday, we can’t exactly say. Before we offer our reasons for saying that, we’ll offer an overview:
We liberals are inclined to want to believe the worst about a pol like Christie. All over the globe, we humans have always been so inclined.
That said, our public discourse has been a viper’s nest of bungled and misleading narratives for the past many years. Examples:
In 1999 and 2000, a steady stream of bungled scripts about Candidate Gore sent George W. Bush to the White House.
In 2012, a bungled script about Susan Rice was repeated ad infinitum. How much confidence do you have in the journalists who accepted and ran with that blatantly bungled script?
We have very little.
In the current case, New Jersey Democrats shaped the narrative right from the week in September when this mess occurred. At that time, the Wall Street Journal reported what it called “rumors”—rumors that the closing of the traffic lanes was political retribution against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor.
At that point, whoever was bruiting those “rumors” wasn’t willing to bruit them on the record. But those rumors created the basic narrative which persists today.
That narrative may turn out to be right, although many people have noted the surface absurdities of this story line. Indeed, our press corps’ prevailing narratives routinely turn out to be wrong.
Last night, we were struck by something Rachel Maddow omitted from her report about the new cache of documents; that led us to an interesting passage in the Washington Post. From there, we went to some of the new cache of documents—the ones which weren’t selectively released by New Jersey Dems.
The fact which didn’t bark: Last night, at the start of her show, Maddow presented an overview of the new cache of documents.
Her account was highly interpretive and highly novelized; her journalistic detachment level was extremely low.
In the passage excepted below, Maddow is telling the story in a way we liberals may be inclined to like. That said, we were struck by the highlighted fact—and by others which didn’t bark:
MADDOW (1/10/14): Today, with release of more than 2,000 pages of documents, which the legislature obtained under subpoena in their investigation of the bridge shutdown, today we learned quite a bit more. After that mid-August instruction from Governor Christie’s office that it was time to cook up something terrible for Fort Lee in the form of traffic problems, we now know that, within the Port Authority, the traffic engineers were asked to provide a few different scenarios for how exactly to do that for Fort Lee. Under what appears to be a guise of a traffic study, the chief traffic engineer proposed three different scenarios for messing with the access lanes on to the George Washington Bridge, three scenarios in essentially descending order of hellishness.That account is far more novelized than journalistic. In the midst of all those accusations, we were struck by the highlighted passage:
The proposed plan from the engineer that would have the worst impact on Fort Lee would be a plan that would merge all of Fort Lee’s access to the bridge down to two lanes. Not good enough, apparently, because the next day, the engineers come back to the issue. Look. Look at this e- mail. The next day.
Here, Mr. Wildstein, as requested attached is the modification to the plans from yesterday. As you can see, our plans for unleashing hell on Fort Lee are now significantly more draconian. Per your request, we have made additional modifications to our menu of options. Now, as you will see, we have come up with a one-lane option as well.
Instead of the worst case for Fort Lee being merging all of its lanes down to two lanes, quote, "one additional scenario would be a merge down to one lane." Yes. Twice as bad. Down to one lane. Does that seem better?
Really? Within the Port Authority, the traffic engineers were asked to come up with a few scenarios “under the guise of a traffic study?”
Presumably, those traffic engineers are not a partisan group. Presumably, they were given some rationale for what they’d been asked to devise.
What were they told they were trying to do? Maddow skipped this obvious question as she told her novelized tale.
That highlighted point seemed interesting. This wasn’t a case of a couple of hacks showing up with traffic cones and closing two lanes of traffic. Whatever happened here, it ran through a set of traffic engineers, a presumably non-partisan group.
What were they told they were trying to do? Very deep in the long, highly novelized news report found in this morning’s Washington Post, the highlighted explanation appears:
RUCKER AND BLAKE (1/11/14): Orange cones were set out before the sun rose blocking two of the bridge’s three local access lanes and forcing commuters to merge into one painfully slow toll lane. There was nowhere special for “EZ-Pass” drivers; everyone waited to pay the $13 toll in the “CASH” lane.In paragraph 29 of a highly novelized report, Rucker and Blake explain the “ostensible” purpose of the alleged traffic study. “Ostensibly, the purpose was to determine whether closing two of the three Fort Lee local toll lanes might help alleviate traffic entering the bridge from the main lanes, including Interstate 95.”
Two separate queues stretched down Fort Lee’s narrow streets for a half-mile until noon each day. At 10 a.m., an estimated 550 vehicles were lined up in Fort Lee awaiting access to the bridge, according to the Port Authority’s traffic study. Over a four-hour period, a total of 2,800 hours were lost to traffic delay, the study said.
Ostensibly, the purpose was to determine whether closing two of the three Fort Lee local toll lanes might help alleviate traffic entering the bridge from the main lanes, including Interstate 95. Early e-mails suggested blocking only one lane as a test, but, at Wildstein’s prompting, the closure was expanded to two lanes.
Was this an actual attempt at a real traffic study? Could there have been a legitimate purpose behind this bungled action?
We don’t know how to answer that. In the absence of clairvoyance, let’s explain what that highlighted passage means:
North toward home—driving up I-95: Interstate 95 runs north and south through the major cities of the eastern seaboard. Heading northbound through New Jersey and toward New York City, I-95 takes you over the GW Bridge, then heads on toward Providence and Boston.
Here’s what happens as you approach the bridge from the south at a busy time:
You crawl along in traffic for miles, cursing your fate and wondering if you’ll ever get to the bridge. When you finally see the bridge, you also see those now-famous access lanes from Fort Lee.
Ten million cars from those access lanes crawl in front of you into the flow, slowing your approach from the south. Having cursed your overall fate for miles, you now start cursing those drivers.
For the northbound driver, this is a maddening arrangement, which doesn’t mean it isn’t fair or that it doesn’t make overall sense. Ostensibly, though, an ostensible purpose for the alleged traffic study appears in the new cache of documents:
How much would northbound flow be improved on I-95 if the Fort Lee access lanes were reduced? To appearances, that was the ostensible question animating the request to those traffic engineers.
It wouldn’t be a crazy question to ask, which doesn’t mean it was asked in good faith. Could it have been asked in good faith? Presumably, yes, although we don’t know if it was.
Wildstein at the site: At any rate, the intrepid David Wildstein was live and direct on the scene on Monday, September 9, emailing and/or texting reports about traffic flow.
On Sunday, September 8, he had emailed Robert Durando, a Port Authority official, saying this:
“Will be at bridge early Monday am to view new lane test.”
“So will I,” Durando replied, offering a set of notes about various preparations which were in place.
On Monday morning, the vigil began. At 8:43 AM on Tuesday, Wildstein was sending this message:
“So I-95 traffic broke about 5 minutes ago, about 45 minutes earlier than usual, because there are 2 additional lanes to handle morning rush.”
Someone responds, “This is good, no?” Instant reply: “Very good.”
Presumably, that means that the northbound traffic jam ended 45 minutes early on I-95, due to the reduced interference from cars cutting in from Fort Lee. Absent the chaos in Fort Lee itself, this presumably would have been a desirable outcome.
Other emails to Bridget Kelly seem to suggest that people may have been monitoring traffic flow at different locations.
Is it possible that this bungled effort was actually undertaken in good faith? Everything’s possible! That said, we don’t know if it was done in good faith. It may not have been.
We do know this: Careful people will be suspicious of overwrought, novelized “news reports” of the type Maddow presented last night. Ditto for the heavily novelized news report in today’s Washington Post.
Is such reporting done in good faith? That’s a good question too!
At any rate, our discourse has been awash in such narratives over the past twenty years. They have often turned out to be wrong.
The basic framework for this novel came from New Jersey Democrats. Newsflash: However crazy Christie may be, New Jersey Democrats can be strongly partisan too.
Looking through the new cache of documents, we see little evidence that this bungled closing of lanes was aimed at Mayor Sokolich, or at anyone else, although Wildstein doesn’t seem to care for Sokolich much.
That doesn’t mean this bungled mess was undertaken in good faith. But careful people will be slow to buy such novelized narratives, even when they favor one’s own partisan leanings and interests.
Read and watch Maddow’s report from last night. In our view, you’ll be looking at terrible journalism. Careful people should be wary of those who “report” important topics in such post-journalistic ways.
Final note—from the start, this narrative was fueled by New Jersey Dems. Once a narrative like this gains traction within our “press corps,” it is very hard to reverse, whether it’s right or wrong.
Memorization is the greatest skill of our modern-day “press corps.” Once they’ve memorized a tale, they’re very slow to change it.
Careful people—dare we say honest people?—will be slow to accept the work of this deeply flawed band.
How will this whole matter turn out? We’ll be eager to see what emerges. Quite often, the truth never does.
Postscript—a note to the fiery, the eager, the partisan: Did we say this “study” was done in good faith?
Actually, no—we did not.
We don’t know if it was done in good faith. At this point, we don’t think that question has been answered.
Coming: Christie regains his high school chum. Also, Maddow’s new ballyhooed theory